Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sundance Film Festival: January 26-30, 2011 (A Recap)

It's been two weeks since I returned home from Park City. I promised everybody photos, so here they are for your viewing pleasure.

On the right: Clay Jeter, the director of Jess + Moss. On the left: Sarah Hagan, who plays Jess in the film.

Waiting in the freezing dark for a shuttle bus to... well, nowhere, apparently.

What a shuttle bus looks like on the inside.

Ty Burr!

Wait-Listing (unsuccessfully) for Take Shelter

Up on Main Street

The Times Talks session at the Egyptian Theatre, in which Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga were all being incredibly arrogant and giving mean-spirited responses to nearly each and every one of Melena Ryzik's thoughtful questions.

Ray Liotta, up-close

Director Susanne Bier during the Q & A for In A Better World

The Film School Student Group at the midnight showing of Vampire

Director Peter D. Richardson during the Q & A of How to Die in Oregon

The Miner's Tour in which a handful of Film School students attended

More of the Miner's Tour

John Cooper

Director J.C. Chandor during the Q & A of Margin Call

Inside the Wait List tent near the the Holiday Theater.

Film School Roundtable. On the far left is Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of the excellent short film Skateistan. Sitting in the middle is music video director Thomas DeNapoli.

Director Alex Stapleton during the Q & A of Corman's World.

Me with some friends after the midnight showing of Meek's Cutoff.

And now for a recap of all of the films I saw at Sundance, in order of my most favorites from top to bottom.

1. Vampire (Iwai Shunji)

I'm not familiar with the previous work of Iwai Shunji, but now I know for sure that he is a filmmaker to look out for. Vampire is a masterful piece of filmmaking from beginning to end: not only did Shunji write and direct the piece, but he also edited it, photographed it and even composed the musical score; as a result, everything about the film is gorgeous. It's a splendidly-acted film, too, with Kevin Zegers' Simon Williams being by far the most likable movie vampire in a long time, in part because he doesn't kill his victims in the old-fashioned way, in part because his intent is not to murder but to put willfully suicidal souls out of their misery. Other impressive cast members include a surprising comeback by Keisha Castle-Hughes (what happened to her after Whale Rider?), as well as another by Trevor Morgan (the bratty kid from Jurassic Park III) as a rapist vampire with homosexual fetishes. The most radiant performance in the film is by Adelaide Clemens as a young, glacial blonde who may very well be the key to rescuing Simon from his dreadful existence.

The movie is extremely gory (I saw a couple of squeamish moviegoers flee the Yarrow auditorium in a panic), but never to an exploitive degree. It's a lovely, poetic film that takes its material very seriously. If there's a flaw, it's that it doesn't quite know when to end: Shunji treats several shots as if they're meant to be the final shot of the film, and a concluding scene with Smallville star Kristen Kreuk feels superfluous. Still, I'm probably just missing something essential about Shubji's approach, and when this movie hits theaters nationwide I'm DEFINITELY seeing it again. You should, too.

2. The Future (Miranda July)

A screening I will never forget. When I rented her 2005 debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know a couple years ago, I knew that July was an interesting filmmaker who would be going places. Now that I have seen The Future, I realize that she is something more: one of the wisest filmmaking voices of our generation.

Though it has dozens of side-splitting moments that had the audience laughing for minutes, The Future is not a full-blown quirky comedy like Me and You and Everyone We Know; and, as a result, I actually think it's a much better film. Miranda July has confirmed her incomparability as a poet of desperation--her films are about aging, wandering souls whose only longing is for love and security. In The Future, she and Hamish Linklater play Sophie and Jason, a couple that decides to adopt a stray cat from the pound and, then, make the most of their lives in the next 30 days waiting before they're allowed to take the cat home.

But that doesn't even begin the incredible scope of July's 91-minute film, which eventually becomes the most surreal and intoxicating independent movie of its kind since Charlie Kaufmann's Synecdoche, New York. As pleasant of a film as Me and You and Everyone We Know was, it followed a typical linear narrative that all first-time independent filmmakers generally adopt for their debut projects. Five years later, July is a much more experienced filmmaker and has chosen this time to play around with narrative structure and, what's more, blend the line between reality and imagination. This seemingly small movie packs a wallop: a talking moon, a litle girl buried in dirt from the neck down, a yellow shirt that literally crawls a across neighborhood street, and characters who have the ability to freeze time.

All of this anchored by a most ingenious plot device: a track of narration by the lonely stray cat, named "Paw Paw", that waits patiently in its cage for the day when Sophie and Jason will finally come to bring it home. We never get to see what Paw Paw actually looks like; we only see her giant paws, which gesture like regular human hands (one of the film's funnier moments). And her voice (by July herself) sounds like the dialect of Norman Bates' crotchety old mother: it's creepy, it's hilarious, and it's even sad. I will not spoil the events that ultimately unfold from Sophie and Jason's anxious wait to adopt Paw Paw, but I can't rave enough about how much of a must-see experience The Future is. When it opens worldwide later in the year, I hope to see it again, maybe even to review it. I have a very good feeling it's the kind of film that improves with repeated viewings.

3. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)

This film is not your average romantic drama, as it involves the strained rleationship between a 12-year old boy and an 18-year old girl who spend their days frolicking in the Kentucky fields and backwoods, creating their own dreamworld that is isolated entirely from the society outside.

Because Jess + Moss has all the aura of a Robert Mulligan coming-of-age drama, I asked the film's director, Clay Jeter, whether Mulligan had been an influence. Jeter was amused with my insights but replied that he was more influenced by the likes of Terrence Malick and David Lynch and added that, storywise, he had been influenced heavily by Carson McCullers' novel of The Member of the Wedding.

4. In A Better World (Susanne Bier)

A masterful Swedish film that previously won an award for Best Foreign Language Film at last month's Golden Globes, and has recently gotten an Academy Award nomination for the same category. Because it's an absorbing cinematic experience on the same level on The Lives of Others, I'd prefer not to give away any plot details, but I will say this: it is a movie about revenge. Not a movie that celebrates revenge but, instead, a movie about how revenge cripples good people. Some are going to find it sanctimonious, but I would beg to differ. Note to the Academy: the Oscar for Best Foreign Film belongs right here.

5. If A Tree Falls (Marshall Curry)

An absolutely engrossing documentary about the life and times of Daniel McGovern, an "eco-terrorist" responsible for arson attacks that led to the destruction of dozens of American log factories and artificial tree markets. Though nobody was in fact killed during his attacks, McGovern was eventually tried by the government as a terrorist and sentenced to life in prison. The film also documents McGovern's allies in the far-left "Earth Liberation Front" and reveals how they were able to dodge harsh prison sentences after they had caved in to plea bargaining. We also get to hear the story from the perspectives of the businessmen who lost their companies to McGovern's acts of arson, and the film takes an unbiased view in deciding whether or not McGovern's crimes were acts of terrorism. What we know for sure, after seeing the film, is that McGovern's crimes are undeniably serious, but so are the ruthless acts of the National Guardsmen who took disgusting measures against the non-violent environmentalists who were protesting alongside McGovern and his accomplices.

6. How to Die in Oregon (Peter D. Richardson)

I felt myself welling up with tears throughout this film. It's a touching, eye-opening documented account of the physician-assisted suicide system that is legal in Oregon and has recently been legalized in Washington and Montana. The movie's narrative is centered around a woman in her 50's by the name of Cody Curtis, who has been diagnosed with a terminal liver cancer and spends the next six months pondering over whether she should appoint the Death With Dignity program to end her life early and spare her family any more needless pain.

7. Corman's World: Exploits of A Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton)

A lot of fun. Director Alex Stapleton has made this film look like a gritty Roger Corman film in itself, and certainly has made it just as entertaining. The film includes splendid interviews with Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdonavich, as well as interviews with other Corman protogees who passed away in the previous year (George Hickenlooper, Irvin Kershner, David Carradine) and of course, interviews with Corman himself and how he longed to be taken seriously as a filmmaking artist.

8. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

An Oregon Trail thriller starring Michelle Williams. None of us in the audience were prepared for the kind of film it would actually turn out to be: an extremely slow-moving study of what it means to be lost in the wilderness, with minimal character development in favor of a strong emphasis on abandonment by civilization and God. Kelly Reichardt could not be at the screening, which disappointed me a great deal: there were so many questions I would have liked to ask her about the film. At the same time, Reichardt might have done herself a favor by not attending; some of the audience members were so bored with Meek's Cutoff that they walked out halfway through the picture. So uncertain is the movie that [spoilers] it even ends on a note of sheer uncertainty, with the characters still lost in the wilderness--their situation still unresolved. While I didn't think Meek's Cutoff was perfect--I wanted to know a little more about the characters, and wasn't sure about how successful the ending was--I admired the way the movie emphasizes that feeling of being so utterly lost. I couldn't think of another film where I had felt that.

9. The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi)

A fascinating documentary about the outrageous events surrounding the Iranian election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad and his totalitarian cronies fixed the elections, put his democractic opponent Musavi under house arrest, and subjected thousands of protesting voters to horrible raping and torturing during the months that followed. The movie is less successful during the animated sequences that cover certain events that were never captured on camera--while the animation itself has an intriguing comic-book vibrance, it feels like something out of a different movie.

10. Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)

Revolving around a firm that is being forced to cut several of its employees or else it runs the risk of collapsing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, this movie is somewhere in between Up in the Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. While a superior effort in comparison to the former film, it lacks the character depth of the latter--Chandor becomes so caught up in crafting a "financial thriller" that he keeps the people in the story at a strange emotional distance; and he lacks the snappy dialogue of Glengarry Glen Ross because his language is devoid of life (he's no David Mamet). Some of the actors in the A-list cast perform admirably (Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany), while others don't do nearly as well (Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto). By far the most effective sequence in the film is the introduction of Jeremy Irons as the head executive who can make or break careers at the drop of a hat.


Day 1
Days 2-3
Day 4

There were other films I had wanted to see at the festival, namely Take Shelter, Bobby Fischer Against the World and the Reagan documentary. And after having heard all the outraged fuss over Lucky McKee's The Woman, it sounds like another title of interest.

Anyway, though, be honest: did I do the blogosphere proud in my ventures? :)


  1. Thanks for posting these. Looks like you and Ty hit it off.

    The Times Talks session at the Egyptian Theatre, in which Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga were all being incredibly arrogant and giving mean-spirited responses to nearly each and every one of Melena Ryzik's thoughtful questions.

    Sounds like they'd be fun on Celebrity Jeopardy!

  2. It was swell getting to meet Ty. It was kind of hilarious: I ended up proving to him that I was familiar with his work by trying to think of the first review of his that came to mind, and I immediately thought of his old review of The Forgotten (2004), of all movies. It reminds me of that opening bit in The Player when they see Scorsese on the street and shout, "Hey, Marty! We loved Cape Fear!" I gotta work on citing better examples of critics' works in public...

    I was surprised indeed by how cold Liotta, Kinnear and Farmiga were behaving, both to Ryzik's questions and to the audience's questions. You remember Matt Seitz's article about the utter depravity of last month's Golden Globes? It felt a lot like that.

  3. Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga were all being incredibly arrogant and giving mean-spirited responses to nearly each and every one of Melena Ryzik's thoughtful questions.

    Still jealous that you got to go! When I saw the pic of Liotta and began reading this sentence, I thought "Wow, that sounds like fun!" Then I read the end of the sentence and was very disappointed in the three of them. How rude it is to act that way at an event you were invited to as a guest! It reminds me of the two people I've read online who went to Q&As with Rob Zombie (and entourage) where the same thing happened.

    I think I would purposely cite obscure works when meeting a celebrity. "Hey Quentin, loved you in 'Golden Girls'!"

  4. Somebody has uploaded a small bit from the Times Talks session onto YouTube:


    To be sure, this clip shows one of the more lighter moments of the session. I like Liotta's joke at the end about how "I'd like to kiss a girl without having to choke her." But earlier in the clip, when Liotta explains his acting craft by flatly stating, "It's just make-believe! It's pretend!" that kind of sets the mood for what the majority of the session felt like. One of the people in the audience, for example, had asked them about how they felt about Kevin Smith deciding to self-promote his new film, Red State; and then Kinnear, Farmiga and Liotta all reacted a bit harshly to the question. One of them (I think it was Varmiga) said, "I don't understand the question... I wasn't there, I haven't seen his movie."

    But it was still nice to see them in person, even if I found them disappointing to listen to. Love your example of QT in Golden Girls; had I gotten the chance, I would have used the opportunity to ask Liotta why he ever agreed to be in something like John Q.

  5. But earlier in the clip, when Liotta explains his acting craft by flatly stating, "It's just make-believe! It's pretend!"

    Sounds like an unfunny version of Ian McKellen's appearance on Extras.

  6. Now THAT I would have gladly paid to see. McKellen's explanatation pretty much kicks the shit out of Liotta's explanation right there.


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